Directed by Simon Barrett.
Starring Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Ella-Rae Smith.
Horror, US, 92 minutes/

Streaming on Shudder from 29th September.


Scriptwriter Simon Barrett, known mainly for his collaborations with director Adam Wingard on YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST, makes his directorial debut here with SÉANCE, a small-scale supernatural slasher that with its wintry setting at a boarding school for girls and largely female cast feels reminiscent of the original BLACK CHRISTMAS. When a bunch of teenage students decide to contact the spirit of a deceased student who is rumoured to haunt the halls of their elite boarding school, events take a tragic turn when one of the girls seemingly commits suicide immediately after. Replacing her is Camille, a quiet girl who immediately ruffles feathers with the clique of girls and finds herself in the centre of the deadly chain of events that has possibly been triggered by their séance.


It feels like a standard set-up for a horror flick with its premise and its archetypal cast of teenage girls/victims. But Barrett, known for introducing interesting wrinkles into his storylines with smart characterisation and interesting twists, attempts to do the same here but in a much more minor key. In the films early stages everything feels very familiar. From its location, characters and set up of its central mystery there is little here that we have not seen before but gradually it becomes more interesting as the character of Camille begins to reveal her true colours in much the same way that the heroes and villains of YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST revealed themselves to be.


Other than the slight mystery of its central character there is little of the surprise or subversion that those films displayed to great effect. To his credit Barrett refuses to repeat what made those films so successful and memorable with their over-the-top natures and instead aims for something lower key here. He succeeds in some respects, characterisation particularly, while in others the results are lacking; a half-baked mystery with a completely obvious suspect that holds very little interest or creates much in the way of tension. Without giving anything away there are a few reveals here in the final act that induce little more than a shrug than any other reaction.


That said SÉANCE still passes as slight piece of horror entertainment. Performances across the board are good showing that Barrett is more than capable of drawing out believable performances from a sizable cast. Suki Waterhouse comes across at first as a blank slate but the choice for this when revealed sparks the film to life in a final act that while a tad heavy on the exposition manages to provide more laughs and some cathartic, bloody action. Aiding this throughout is an atmospheric score by Tobias Vethake, aka Sicker Man, that manages to combine synthwave with more haunting and doom-laden undertones.


Whilst it may not achieve anything new, or even attempt to, with its premise it still manages to come across as an interesting development in Barrett’s career. Where he has more than proven himself as a writer, he still has a way to go as director but the signs that he has a keen eye and knows how to get to grasp with certain aspects is promising for future films.


Iain MacLeod.


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